Study Guide

In Memory of W.B. Yeats Themes

  • Death

    "In Memory of W.B. Yeats" is all about death. After all, it's an elegy, a poem written in memory of a person who has passed away. Death has a way of making people consider what it means to be alive – especially if the dead person happens to share your career path and maybe even your worldview.  In this poem, Yeats's passing becomes an occasion for Auden to think through the complicated legacy Yeats left behind – as well as the ways in which Yeats's work forever shaped the poetic landscape. Yup, it's a pretty big topic to take on in one little poem. But if anyone's up to the task, it's Auden.

    Questions About Death

    1. In what ways is this poem like other elegies you've read? In what ways is it different?
    2. Is death portrayed as a bad thing in this poem? Can you find passages that support your answer?   
    3. Why write about someone right after they die? How does this perspective change things?      
    4. Do you approach a dead poet's work differently than you would a living poet's? Why or why not?
    5. Is Auden apprehensive of the way Yeats's memory will be handled by the living? How can you tell?

    Chew on This

    "In Memory of W.B. Yeats" isn't one elegy – it's three.

    "In Memory of W.B. Yeats" mourns the loss of Yeats the poet, not Yeats the man.

  • Art and Culture

    Why is it that we read poetry? We get Auden's answer to that question in the poem "In Memory of W.B. Yeats": poetry moves in ways that people can't. It lasts in ways that people don't. And it makes us feel things about people and places that we might not otherwise spend any time thinking about at all. Take Yeats, for example; when was the last time you thought about him? Exactly. As Auden works through various versions of elegies, we begin to feel a bit of what it must have been like for Auden to lose such an important presence in his life.

    Questions About Art and Culture

    1. How do the forms of this poem help you to understand Auden's take on elegies in general?
    2. Do you think a poem is a good way to commemorate someone's death? Why or why not?
    3. What is it about poetry that Auden seems to value so much?
    4. Do you think Auden would talk about visual art in the same way he does poetry, or is this a genre-specific description? Why do you come to your conclusion?

    Chew on This

    Art is the one thing that can change people's minds in times of darkness and despair.

    As this poem asserts, art doesn't ever change anything. It just offers fresh perspectives.

  • Admiration

    William Butler Yeats was a giant among poets.  His works dominated the literary and political landscape for quite a few decades, as a matter of fact. And his death left a big, gaping hole in the world of poetry – not to mention the world in general.  But before you paint his monument in gold, read "In Memory of W.B. Yeats." This poem asks us to think about Yeats's failings as well as his triumphs. After all, the only real way to express admiration is to do so honestly, right?

    Questions About Admiration

    1. Do you think Auden admired Yeats the man? Why or why not?
    2. Why does Auden seem to like Yeats so much?
    3. What words would you use to characterize Auden's vision of Yeats? How about Yeats's work?
    4. Does this poem suggest that society values poetry? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    Auden's elegy values Yeats more for his political commitment than for his poetic virtuosity.

    Auden's elegy values Yeats's work because it can express sentiments that politics and business can't.

    Although Auden admires Yeats the poet, he seems to have less regard for Yeats the man in this poem.

  • Isolation

    "In Memory of W.B. Yeats" depicts the world as a lonely place. Funny enough, though, people don't even seem to realize how alone and isolated they are. The way this poem describes it, the world is almost like the set of a horror movie – you know, the kind where people can't figure out that they've been turned into zombies? Poetry may not be a perfect cure for all this isolation, but according to Auden, it can help people see the truth of their situation, even if it forces them to acknowledge their own loneliness.  And that's something. As your middle school teachers always said, knowing is half the battle.

    Questions About Isolation

    1. Is there anyone who seems to <em>not</em> be isolated in this poem?
    2. What is it that isolates people? Can you find evidence in the poem to support your answer?
    3. Was Yeats as alone as everyone else? How can you tell?
    4. Does poetry combat isolation? If so, how?

    Chew on This

    Even though poetry can point out people's isolation, it can't do anything to solve their problems.

    Poetry can help combat the pervasive loneliness of our lives by making people aware of their own isolation.